Seeking a leadership role: Ovide Mercredi's high profile of late has raised speculation about the former First Nations chief's political ambitions, writes Rick Mofina.

Rick Mofina
The Ottawa Sun
Monday, October 16, 2000

   Ovide Mercredi is in the limelight again, three years after he was defeated as national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

His profile was high during the recent dispute over native rights in Burnt Church, N.B., prompting observers to ponder his re-entry into native politics.

''He's looking for a way to continue his leadership role,'' said Anthony Hall, professor of Native American Studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta.

''He likes to see himself in a statesman type of role,'' Mr. Hall, who co-wrote the entry for the AFN in the Canadian Encyclopedia, said in an interview.

Matthew Coon Come, the fiery former grand chief of the Quebec Cree, who was elected to the top AFN job in July, acknowledges drawing upon Mr. Mercredi's experience, but draws the line there.

''I called upon him, he's very visible,'' Mr. Coon Come said in an interview. ''But I call upon other former national chiefs.''

Mr. Mercredi is a household name known for his aggressive, combative stance with the federal government during his six years as the AFN's national chief. His administration ended in 1997 when he lost the job to his arch-rival Phil Fontaine.

After his loss, Mr. Mercredi all but disappeared from the native political landscape, until last summer. That's when the 54-year-old lawyer publicly backed Mr. Coon Come, who defeated Mr. Fontaine at the AFN's assembly in Ottawa.

Following his election, Mr. Coon Come gave Mr. Mercredi the job of his adviser for ''hot spots.''

Mr. Coon Come's victory arose from a platform of defiance and his vow to strongly assert a First Nations agenda with the federal government.

Noting that activism was Mr. Coon Come's strength, native leaders said after his victory, that unless he harnessed the winds of native discontent across the country effectively, his words would sound hollow.

In August, confrontations reignited in Burnt Church, which became a crucible for violence after last year's Supreme Court of Canada ruling in the Donald Marshall case upheld native access to a commercial fishery.

In September, Mr. Coon Come travelled to Burnt Church to support the Mi'kmaq natives.

His trip was followed by attempts of mediator Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario, to negotiate an end to the crisis.

But Mr. Mercredi also travelled to the community and was often quoted in national news reports on the conflict.

''Burnt Church symbolizes to the Indian people how important it is to our people to resist government policies and laws that violate our treaty rights, '' Mr. Mercredi told reporters recently.

''Ovide needs to be on camera, that's the kind of personality he has,'' said Bill Wilson, a Fontaine supporter and former candidate for the AFN's top job.

Mr. Wilson, an official with the political arm of the First Nations Summit of B.C., and other observers have suggested Mr. Mercredi's presence stems from his desire to continue to help shape First Nations history and political payback.

Mr. Coon Come dismisses such views.

After three months at the helm of one of the country's most challenging political jobs, Mr. Coon Come insists there is nothing out of the ordinary calling on his predecessors, such as Mr. Fontaine, whom he has called, or Mr. Mercredi.

''I should be able to have that freedom,'' he said, admitting that Mr. Mercredi has been an obvious public fixture recently.

''Right now he's visible because of Burnt Church,'' Mr. Coon Come said, stressing, ''I was the one that provided the leadership, the one that worked with Burnt Church on the mediator, on solutions. I can't be in all different places at once.''

And Mr. Mercredi did not play as large a role in Mr. Coon Come's AFN leadership campaign as some people suggest. ''He was there at the tail end,'' Mr. Coon Come said. ''He was not there from day one.''

For the experts, Mr. Coon Come is a political force, with or without Mr. Mercredi.

''Matthew is almost in a class of his own, in terms of political leadership right now,'' said Mr. Hall.

''I don't think there's a politician in the country that is anywhere near his class,'' he said. ''He takes complex constitutional points and really gets to the heart of the matter.''

Such qualities distinguish Mr. Coon Come, Mr. Wilson said.

''We don't have two national chiefs. We have one, duly elected, who happens to employ a former national chief,'' Mr. Wilson said.

''I don't think it makes much of a difference who you employ at that level. It's on the ground that really matters.''